Today was supposed to be another Shabbat. Another Shabbat like the thousands we have all experienced throughout our lives. We were supposed to be here celebrating with the Antwerpen family as Max was just recently called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. We were supposed to be here, in a world that would resemble the same world we gathered together in last Shabbat. But this is not just another Shabbat. The world, our world is not the same one that we occupied last week. Our world today is a little broken. Our world today is a little scarier. Our world today will never be the same, after witnessing the horrific murder of
Joyce Feinburg, Richard Godfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Robinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon Sylvan Simon Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax & Irving Yungner,
Murdered last Shabbat, as they davened, as they prayed, simply doing what we all do here today. It is unimaginable to us that this could happen. How could someone be killed in our safe space, on our sacred day? We are left to answer these and so many unanswerable questions. Unfortunately, even with time, even if we are able to answer a few of these questions, we will never be able to bring back these blessed souls all taken before their time was up on this earth. But perhaps as we start to pick up the pieces, as we start to emerge from our collective period of mourning, we can find a way to be joyous again, find a way to create just a little bit of meaning out of this senseless tragedy.
This morning we read from excerpts the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah. Twice in this Torah portion we read about one of our ancestors dying and that is sad. Abraham and Sarah are the mother and father of our people. Their death, even at an advanced age, fills us with sorrow because of the great beauty and meaning of their lives. There is only one Abraham and Sarah, and following their passing the world they inhabited, like ours today, was definitely a little dimmer. But something amazing also happens after they die. Following each of their deaths, their loved ones find a way to create some joy, to find a little happiness, a silver lining in the enveloping dark clouds created by their passing.
The text tells us that Abraham not only mourns his beloved, but her death brings him to tears. Yet immediately following his challenging period of mourning, Abraham sets out to find a wife for his son Isaac. He picks himself up, focuses on creating some joy in his life. When Rebecca and Isaac look at one another for the first time, they knew right away exactly into whose eyes they were gazing. A biblical version of love at first sight. Abraham was alive and undoubtedly overjoyed at his son finding his bashert. Their love was so strong, that their moment was immortalized as a moment for all subsequent Jewish couples in the Jewish wedding ceremony through the ritual of bedekken where a bride’s veil is lowered by her groom, signaling that they too have met THE ONE, in an ode to Rebecca and Isaac and they love they shared.
Not long after, Abraham dies as well, presumably a happier man, safe in the knowledge of his son’s finding a partner. Our torah tells us that he is buried by both Isaac and Yishmael, his two sons. A reconciliation of brothers happens following the death of their father. The two who had presumably not seen each one another since childhood, and now in the aftermath and ashes of their father’s passing they find their way back to one another. In my mind’s eye, I picture Abraham looking down and smiling as his sons embrace at their father’s grave, saying now I can rest in peace.
In each of these stories, out of sadness following death, emerges joy. I should not say this as though it is easy. I can only imagine that in each time, as is the case with our lives today, that it takes great care and effort to find this joy, these rays of light following intense darkness. We are living in darkness. The murders last Shabbat are an episode of evil that I hope and pray not one of us experience’s again in our lifetimes. But even in the midst of one of the darkest times we have ever endured there have been rays of light that have emerged. Brief sparks that are the best antidote to what ails all of us, and what we all need to emerge from this challenging time. I would like to share with you just three examples.
Tomorrow our beloved Ravens will take on their arch rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many of you will be there tomorrow, cheering for the ravens and even booing the Steelers. But I need to ask you tomorrow at least at the beginning of the game to cheer for players in gold and black. 100 Steeler players and officials attended the funerals of Cecil and David Rosenthal, whose sister Michelle was the community relations director for the team. “Our hearts are heavy, but we must stand against anti-Semitism and hate crimes of any nature and come together to preserve our values and our community,” team president Art Rooney II said in a statement issued Sunday morning. Many of the Pittsburgh professional and college teams have donned patches on their uniforms with Jewish starts in support of the victims and their families. Many have donated thousands of dollars to help the community rebuild. And yesterday the cover of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette had the words of our Kaddish printed in Hebrew, a loud call that we belong and we are here to stay. Today we are all Pittsburgh fans.
On Monday, I mentioned that the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh has raised enough funds to cover the costs of all the funerals. I have been moved to tears repeatedly by the reaction and support of our Christian and Moslem brothers and sisters who are supporting us and standing together in solidarity with us throughout our difficult time. People have stopped by the synagogue, sent us flowers and notes, and are even here today praying with us for a better time, and for our communities to find the collective strength we need to endure. I want to share with you a letter that we received from Pastor Joe Cochran who is the rector of the St. James Church and Charlotte Riggs the head of their school.
Finally I want to share with you the story of Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, the president of Allegheny General Hospital. Dr. Cohen is the physician that worked on the evil perpetrator of these crimes. Perhaps it is Dr. Cohen’s radical demonstration of humanity in an era that seems so void of it that inspires me. Perhaps it is his ability to resist the temptation to hate in the face of the murder of 9 people that he knew personally, but his example of great care for an individual that continued to spout Anti-Semitic slurs even as he was being cared for by many Jews, is the prefect weapon against the very bigotry at the root of these heinous acts. Dr. Cohen said “He got great care here. Many of the people who attended to him were Jewish. And they’re heroes. They did like the cops did. They did their job. They went and confronted the problem, and they’re true to their core beliefs and I’m very proud of them.”
What these stories illustrate, what I am asking of you today is not easy. But it is our tradition and it is our nature to find light amidst darkness and to create a little joy amidst our great sadness. How do we do this? We do this by being here today. By showing up as an act of defiance. We can also do this by donating to HIAS the very organization this monster targeted with his scorn. HIAS is an organization that has provided for immigrants since its inception. Many of us here today are immigrants and children of immigrants. This sacred group represents the Jewish values that are the bedrock of every Jewish community, and this group was targeted specifically in the shooting last Shabbat. Their president Mark Hetfield said in response, ““We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”
My friends this is an excruciating time for our people and for our country. Today we might even feel as though bigotry and anti-Semitism are rising above the basic tenets of love and religious freedom. But we have a responsibility not only to speak out but to act out. We have a need right now to be a source of light and to rise above the evident hatred that exists in far too many places in our country today. We have actually begun this process just by showing up today. Just by showing up we are screaming to those who would perpetrate this kind of evil that we will not be deterred and we will not be afraid. That my friends is in the spirit of our nature and our tradition of always seeking light amidst even the most intense darkness. I want to close by sharing with you the song of Rebbe Nachman of Bretslav: All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing to do is not to be afraid.
Please Join Hazzanim Perlman and Lichterman as we conclude by singing this song together. The words are in your Shabbat booklet.
Chizuk Amuno Congregation & Schools is pleased to welcome Rabbi Gruenberg as our Senior Rabbi in July 2018. Prior to his appointment, Rabbi Gruenberg served as the Rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Yardly, Pennsylvania for seven years where he was known for his innovative, involvement in the schools, and engagement of young families.
Rabbi Gruenberg is a product of the Conservative Jewish movement as the child of parents who both made their careers in the Conservative Jewish education field in both synagogue and day-school surroundings. He attended a Solomon Schechter day school, Camp Ramah and USY. He also worked for all three of these organizations as well.
In addition to reinvigorating aspects at his former congregation, Rabbi Gruenberg is involved in the community at-large and has held positions of leadership. Rabbi Gruenberg was the president of the Bucks County Board of Rabbis, a member of the national UJC rabbinic cabinet, and Chair of a Rabbinical Assembly committee on rabbinic care for colleagues new to the field. He was selected to participate in the Kellogg School of Rabbinic Management at Northwestern University and has written numerous articles for media sources, the Bucks County Courier Times and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg grew up in Westchester County, NY and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from SUNY Binghamton. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary as a Conservative rabbi in 2002 and immediately served as Rabbi-in-Residence and Director of Judaic Studies for a Solomon Schechter elementary and high-school. Rabbi Gruenberg and his wife Elissa moved to Nyack in 2004 where he was the spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel for almost seven years. During their time in Nyack they increased their family with two new members, their son Samuel who is 13 and their daughter Kayla who is 11.